Team Roles, Team Development and Team Effectiveness

Team Roles, Team Development and Team EffectivenessTowards the end of the 20th century, Organisational theorists popularized the concept of constructing teams as a managerial solution to the never-ending quest of further raising efficiency and creativity in the workplace. However, it hasn’t taken long for many organisations to realise that effective teams are not a natural phenomena. A team is a group of two or more people who influence and interact with one another, perceive themselves as a social entity within an organisation and who work toward, and are mutually accountable for, achieving shared goals associated with organisational objectives (McShane & Travaglione 2007). Interdependence and need for collaboration holds team members together, however without careful consideration for a team’s design and the environment it will thrive within, a team is essentially nothing more than the overused, four letter word itself. For a team to be effective, attention must be paid to such notions and the team processes that are influenced by them. In addition to this, managers must realise that team effectiveness not only encompasses the extent to which a team achieves organisational objectives, but also to what degree the objectives of its members are achieved too. Only then is a team going to be equipped with the structure and resources required for it to be a sustainable and effective entity.

Today, many corporate leaders are favouring the idea that people working alone usually lack adequate capacity or knowledge to effectively achieve organisational objectives. This is particularly true for tasks that are high in intricacy and have many interdependent subtasks, due to teams normally comprising of members with complementary skills allowing individual strengths to be maximized and weaknesses minimized. For example, GM Holden designs next-generation vehicles by requiring teamwork to combine engineering, style and efficient product design rather than relying on the creativity of individuals (McShane & Travaglione 2007, p266). This appears to be in good faith too – as early studies have revealed that under the right conditions, teams make better decisions, develop better products and services, and create a more energised workforce compared with employees working alone (McShane & Travaglione 2007, p267). However, only under the right conditions. Some teams are effective while others are destined to fail depending on these conditions, and the team’s contextual components are essentially the initial contributing factors to this outcome. Environmental elements that will impact on a team’s effectiveness include reward systems, physical space, communication systems, organisational structure, organisational leadership and organisational environment. For instance, teams require leaders to provide support and coaching, and need to exist within an environment where they can secure enough resources to meet performance targets (McShane & Travaglione 2007). These factors combine to establish the setting for a team of high effectiveness to flourish.  Just as important is the associated notion of Team Design, which encompasses task characteristics, team size and team composition. For example, teams are known to be more effective when their assigned tasks are relatively complex and encourage high task interdependence; while the amount of members in such teams are also kept to a minimum; large enough to perform their task but small enough to encourage efficient coordination(McShane & Travaglione 2007). Through careful research and planning, managers can not only encourage the development of an effective team by influencing the elements of its context, but also the very design of the unit too.

On the other hand, what managers have little direct control over is a team’s development – team design and contextual factors have some influence, however team members themselves are largely responsible for the formation of relationships, roles and acceptable behaviours within the team structure. This lack of control has led many organisational theorists to attempt to explain how groups form and progress towards a goal, with Bruce Tuckman’s 5 stage model becoming a popular solution to calming such uncertainty. This model provides a general outline of how teams take shape and progress, by forming, storming, norming, performing and eventually adjourning. Tuckman insisted that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for teams to be effective. The forming stage is said to be one of polite orientation where members get to know each other and try to find out where they fit, what is expected of them, and from this decide whether or not they wish to continue membership. Members become more proactive and willing to cause interpersonal conflict in the Storming stage where they compete for various team roles and form coalitions in attempts to influence team goals and behaviour. The Norming and Performing stages follow, where roles and consensus around group objectives are established and team members cooperate in an efficient and supportive manner towards achieving group objectives respectively. Last is the adjourning stage, where members shift their attention away from the task to a more social focus as they realise their team relationship is ending. The model also suggests that members will defer to existing formal or informal leadership in the early stages to grasp some initial rules, direction and structure for interaction (McShane & Travaglione 2007).

Like Tuckman, Meredith Belbin identified the importance of the establishment of roles within teams. Roles are the behaviours that members are expected to perform based on their position in a team; designated during the storming stage of team development. They provide members with a voice and responsibility in regards to working towards goals, and comfort in the sense they can identify their place within the group. Roles aid in providing structure to team activities, which Belbin has outlined in his team role theory which consists of 9 roles derived from specific personality characteristics, including coordinators, shapers, completers and implementers. Belbin suggests that people have a natural preference for a particular role, and that all 9 roles must be engaged for team effectiveness, with certain roles dominating at various stages of the team’s activities. For example, a coordinator is initially a key figure when a team is identifying its needs, while implementers become more important during the more task orientated, conclusion of a project (McShane & Travaglione 2007). The timing of these different stages is also debated by OB theorists, with Gersick’s punctuated equilibrium model becoming popular as an alternative to Tuckman’s model. Rather than 5 stages, Gersick suggests only 2-3: a  slow, first phase that is relatively unproductive with members loosely adhering to a basic agenda, a transition period that usually occurs at a halfway point in the project where a new agenda is established, and a final phase where members vigorously address task related goals due to awareness of final deadlines approaching (Davidson et al. 2009). Both Tuckman’s and Gersick’s models have received a lot of support; with Belbin’s team role theory applicable to both. Although all 3 have received criticisms too, it is undeniable that each promotes team effectiveness through initiating structure, a degree of direction, cohesiveness and opportunity for interchangeable leadership. Individually or mixed, such theories suggest teams are set up for success if managers are willing to make contextual concessions to support each stage of team development and the needs of each role. For example, managers can be contextually supportive of a team in the Peforming stage by not starving them of resources or suddenly cutting back staff, therefore refraining from indirectly causing a group to slow progress by falling back to previous stages of development as per Tuckman’s 5-stage model.

These theories associated with team development, and their impact on team effectiveness, were clearly demonstrated in a team exercise recently carried out in Organisational Behaviour tutorials at the University of Western Australia (which I participated in). Students were split into teams to attempt to build a free-standing tower using paper plates and straws, where each team was allowed 20 minutes for planning and 5 minutes for building, and the final height-material ratio determining an amount of profit or loss for the group. While my team didn’t meet its goals and produced a loss of $220000, in hindsight this failure is a clear indication that Tuckman’s, Girsick’s and Belbin’s theories were indeed in play. The 20min planning stage began with our team completing the forming stage of development by vaguely getting to know each other, however due to unfamiliarity amongst members, a team leader wasn’t naturally assumed, leaving the team with a lack of direction from the very beginning. The storming phase quickly came about with various members debating ideas with one another, but with the lack of leadership to keep things organised, debates broke off into subgroups making it difficult for everyone’s ideas to be heard. Whole group discussions were dominated by 3-4 of the more confident members, who would influence the goals and means in an unstructured manner for the rest of the storming stage, with quieter members usually only speaking up in support of ideas. In line with Girsick’s model, 10-15 minutes of the planning phase was indeed quite unproductive, with the norming phase only beginning with a quarter of planning time left. This stage was quite rushed and random due to the impending deadline, with consensus on ideas only really had by dominant members, and roles assigned to only a few members without true consideration. The performing stage came about and the mood progressed from relatively calm to quite frantic, with people talking over each other and confusion arising particularly amongst those who weren’t assigned a role – two of which decided to joke around and distract those who were assigned a role. Such behaviour can be linked to Belbin’s model; a team can only be productive if all roles are established, otherwise social loafing can occur because the culprits don’t see themselves as identifiable members of the group (McShane & Travaglione 2007). Things went from bad to worse when our tower began collapsing; the limited creativity as a consequence of the unstructured dominance of a few members resulted in no contingency plans. Ultimately, our tower was rubble at the end of the production phase. Nevertheless, an adjourning stage still went ahead with everyone having a laugh about the experience in hindsight!

Clearly, the utter failure of the task highlights the validity of the theories, but only when their progress is supported by managers through contextual influence and team design. The “necessary” steps of Tuckman’s model were all pursued, however the lack of leadership in the beginning resulted in no stage being exhausted before progressing further and thus devastating cracks appeared in the team’s development. If a team leader could have been assumed, planning and direction would have been more structured and the production outcome more effective – in line with Tuckman’s model. With that said, it is recommended that managers selectively choose members so a leader can be naturally assumed, or select one themselves so teams have direction from the onset instead of experiencing a stage of initial bewilderment that may never subside. It is also recommended that team sizes are kept small and individual performance measurable or identifiable in order to decrease social loafing. This will ensure that if members aren’t assigned a role, they will seek out one, thus increasing productivity and placing the team in line with Belbin’s model towards team effectiveness, instead of away from it. Managers should also consider implementing team performance targets, seeking out members with the necessary skills and providing considerable access to resources in order to keep a team on track (particularly important regarding Girsick’s model), refrain from hindering its development, and encourage cohesiveness amongst its members – all of which promote a trouble, conflict and stress-free environment set up for success. In conclusion, while managers have little direct control over a team’s development – team design and contextual factors can be, and should be, manipulated to allow individual members to work together to evolve the entity into one of great effectiveness.


References

Better Projects: Punctuated Equilibrium, 2008. Available from: <http://www.betterprojects.net/2008/05/punctuated-equilibrium.html>.
[3 October 2009].

Davidson, P., Simon, A., Woods, P & Griffin, R., 2009, Management: Core Concepts and Applications, 2nd edn, John Wiley & Sons, Queensland.

Kelly, Prof. K. n.d, Tuckman’s 5 Stage. Available from: <http://kellyconsultants.biz/Tuckmansstages.htm>. [2 October 2009].

McShane, S & Travaglione, T, 2007, Organisational Behaviour on the Pacific Rim, 2nd edn, McGraw-Hill Australia Pty Ltd, New South Whales.

*Image source: http://www.blueskyexperiences.com/facilitated-team-development.cfm

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